AN ARTIFICIAL CONSTRUCT
Even as the BRICS member states come to terms with a rising China, a fundamental contradiction lies at the very heart of BRICS as a political idea. China and Russia have little incentive to seek a change in the global political institutional fabric. They have a stake in preserving the status quo, while the remaining three— India, Brazil, and South Africa— are struggling to enter the hallowed confines of great power politics, and as such seek a redistribution. This struggle is reflected in the debate over restructuring the permanent membership of the UN Security Council.
BRICS has called for ‘‘ comprehensive reform’’ of the United Nations to make the body “more effective, efficient, and representative”. However, China remains one of the biggest obstacles to changing the permanent membership of the Security Council. The veto- wielding powers of China and Russia have an impact on global policies that Brazil, India and South Africa can only aspire to. Not surprisingly, it’s US President Barack Obama— not Hu Jintao or Vladimir Putin— who promised India that he would help in this goal during his visit to New Delhi in November 2010.
While BRICS wants greater responsibility on economic issues, in political and security affairs it remains reluctant to share any burdens. It has not been able to fashion a coordinated response to various global challenges as is reflected in its divergent positions at the UN. In another example, despite being dissatisfied with the global financial institutional fabric, the members of BRICS failed to collectively challenge the Western dominance of the IMF and World Bank during the 2012 leadership changes of these institutions. The candidacy of France’s Christine Lagarde went unchallenged, and BRICS failed to propose a common candidate for the presidency of the World Bank. Unless BRICS can articulate a common vision on global issues, it will remain unable to set the global agenda and discourse.
It is also important to recognise that the BRICS’ conception of global order fundamentally diverges from the liberal vision of Western states. As Sciences Po professor Zaki Laidi argues, BRICS “is concerned with maintaining its independence of judgment and national action in a world that is increasingly economically and socially inter- dependent”. As a result, on critical global issues, BRICS has been satisfied proffering banalities as opposed to proposing serious policy choices.
Beyond the question of global leadership, it is not readily evident if BRICS members are even considered leaders in their own neighbourhoods. All, including China, continue to face significant challenges within their own regions. China’s ham- handed assertiveness in its neighbourhood is producing a backlash, seen in a loose anti- Chinese coalition emerging in East and Southeast Asia. India’s dominance of the South Asian landscape makes it a natural target of resentment from its smaller neighbours. Brazil’s leadership in South America is not accepted by other states in the region, as is reflected in Argentina’s rejection of the Brazilian candidacy for permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Russia’s neighbours still chafe at the memory of Soviet behaviour during the Cold War, while South Africa has been found wanting in tackling challenges in its own backyard ( such as the Libyan crisis).
The growing fascination with BRICS is partly an offshoot of the discussion on the emerging “post- American” world where many commentators argue multipolarity is likely to be the norm. Yet, while BRICS may have growing economies and the idea may have morphed into a nascent political concept, it is not entirely clear if it translates into power at the global level. Its contribution to the global order remains tentative at best and problematic at worst. BRICS nations have so far not been able to create institutions that would help them to consolidate and leverage their clout on the global stage. Even if BRICS get its economic act together, which seems unlikely, the group will not be able to turn that strength into a unified political force. Furthermore, the dominance of China makes most of the goals articulated by the BRICS states wobbly. The point of this coalition was always to show that the balance of power is shifting to emerging countries and away from the West’s historical dominance, but a multipolar world isn’t the same as China just trying to tilt the balance of power towards itself.
The narrative surrounding the rise of BRICS is as exaggerated as that of the decline of the United States. The tectonic plates of global politics are certainly shifting, but their movements are yet not predictable. As a result, BRICS will remain an artificial construct, merely an acronym coined by an investment banking analyst for quite some time to come.